I was a young college student and Saroj Khan, the judge at an intercollegiate Bollywood dance competition, where we were perhaps mistakenly sent to present a work of classical group choreography. The rowdy college audience began chanting in unison, “ek do teen char, band karo ye atyaachaar” [One two three four, we can’t take this anymore] as we were practically booed off stage.
I recall this as I watch a documentary on the life of the late Saroj Khan four months into India’ s lockdown. This new world of solitariness and shut-down is not unfamiliar to me. It is not even entirely unwelcome. What is unnerving, though, is to discover that I have been an actor (sometimes willing, and sometimes not) in the dogmatic and divisive world of the Indian performing arts. The documentary makes me confront this again. It is unsettling and brings home some disturbing revelations about dance dichotomies that I haven’t yet resolved.
Saroj Khan was a dance warrior: fiercely independent and self-made. Dance was her only weapon and she fought till her dying breath. She managed to not only survive, but also thrive in the male-dominated world of Bollywood. In the documentary she expresses both her deep hurt and deep gratitude towards a clearly abusive guru who “married” her at thirteen and then abandoned her. This love-hate guru-shishya dilemma she went through is not uncommon in our performing arts world. We have many among us who rebel against families and society to accept as our destiny very toxic hierarchies and abuse as necessary steps to becoming a dancer, musician or actor. And we too remain forever grateful. A single mother, Saroj Khan worked all her life to be accepted and recognised as “choreographer” in a world that she recognised as flawed but also hers. She had as pressing a need to fit in as I, a dancer of privilege had to break out.
I have a clear memory of consciously curbing my swinging hips as a child when I sensed the male gaze for the first time. Even Kathak for me as a young student was about embodying complex rhythms and internalising taals and transforming into gods and flower garlands with delight, without ever acknowledging my own body. On watching “Choli ke Peechhe” with a new gaze of a student, I observe how Saroj Khan deliberately draws attention to the body: the hips, the waist, the knee, the leg and the eyes, in an exaggerated expression of sexuality. I confess that I still cringe, but that perhaps has more to do with the objectifying camera angles that reduce dance to gyrating body parts that make me deeply uncomfortable, both as a dancer and as a spectator. I can’t deny though that Madhuri’ Dixit’s embodiment of Saroj Khan’s choreography is an unapologetic celebration of the body, a quality I would like to borrow and incorporate more in my own dance practice.
My second and last encounter with Saroj Khan was as curator of the Kala Ghoda festival in 2009. I had approached her rather reluctantly after being prodded by the committee to present a Bollywood sequence at an open-air non-ticketed dance venue. I was pushing instead for lesser known and relatively inaccessible classical, folk and contemporary artistes who I claimed were doing more “meaningful” work. She graciously agreed to not charge herself but insisted that I pay a minimum fee to cover her dancers’ remuneration which required me to double my budget. I refused to give in. I was not about to cut the token payments of other lesser-known artistes on my list to accommodate a Bollywood diva. I remember feeling relief at her decision to withdraw her act from the line-up.
It was my own indoctrination at work. As young dancers, we were often told we must not dance for a living, but work for the greater cause as the glorious preservers and propagators of Indian culture. To be granted a stage was a blessing, a gift, an “opportunity”. Saroj Khan was free of such illusions. She was a solid source of income for many young dancers. Her art remains freely available to audiences around the globe while I rush in and out of Zoom meetings, planning living-room mehfils and audience-building strategies.
I believe it is time we had a good laugh at ourselves and shake off the absurdities we have internalised. We need to tread lightly as many of our predecessors have, embracing both the ease and discomfort that comes with our forms and their complex and hybrid histories. I recently came across a jugalbandi sequence on Bindadin Maharaj’s celebrated Kathak composition Niratat Dhang, choreographed by our very own Kathak legend, Gopi Krishna for the film Chanda ka Palna. Two dance-masters [enacted by Mehmood and Dhumal] compete to woo an upper-class student [played by Mumtaaz] through the language of Kathak that uses surprisingly nuanced adaakari, padhant, nritta and of course the final chakkar face-off that Bollywood loves. This sequence is also a hilarious subversion of the male gaze. I recommend it as essential viewing for a whole new filmy take on Kathak history
My dichotomies are nowhere near resolved. But this lockdown has been a time to look at them long and hard. I have been trying to break down some of the hierarchies in my own head. I have consciously reshaped my current dance pedagogy and practice by building it around play, and allowing myself and my students multiple ways of entering and inhabiting the Kathak body, including the Bollywood way if they so choose.
From here on, whenever I catch myself rolling my eyes at a Bolly-Kathak performance (and I know I will), I must not let myself forget that the spectators that day at that intercollegiate Bollywood dance competition had every right to dismiss my dance too.
Performer, choreographer, teacher and curator, Sanjukta Wagh has trained extensively under Rajashree Shirke in Kathak and Pandit Murli Manohar Shukla in Hindustani Music. Her choreographing and performances have won her several awards and critical acclaim across the country and abroad. Sanjukta is the founder of an interdisciplinary initiative called Beej in Mumbai which is engaged in exploring the creative process and improvisation, alternative methods of classical dance pedagogy and collaborative performance. Follow on Instagram @sanjuktawagh